Yes, we know the story by now. Justin Vernon went to a cabin in Wisconsin and made a record. The myth around Bon Iver’s debut record For Emma, Forever Ago has been widely reported since it was released in 2008. Justin Vernon left his life in Raleigh, NC and moved to his dad’s cabin in the Wisconsin wilderness. He spent a number of months writing the songs that became that widely acclaimed release. We know the story so well now that even The Onion has recently made fun of the mere idea “Who is this guy?” we all wondered. Is the band Bon Iver or is Bon Iver a pseudonym. How do you pronounce Bon Iver? And for the love of God, who is Emma? A few years later we have figured most of these questions out. After For Emma… an all too short EP (Blood Bank) released in 2009 and since then Vernon has been largely off the radar. But after collaborating with Kanye West this past year, an entirely new audience were once again asking, “Who is this guy?” Now with Vernon and his band’s second album Bon Iver, Bon Iver out, timing couldn’t be more perfect for this band to blow up even more. This album is far less hushed, and haunting than Emma, but that certainly doesn’t make it less somber. Vernon has used the time off to build upon the ideas and sounds of his debut record to make something very familiar, yet very different.
Right from the first track “Perth”, we get our first “holy shit” moment as it starts with a beautiful electric hook accompanied by an almost ominous marching snare. It then gives way to horns and builds layers upon layers of Vernon’s falsetto. It only gets better from there. “Holocene” and its gorgeous finger picking and steel guitar melodies illustrate how much Vernon has grown. The barren and stark minimalism of Emma has been replaced by this new lush and layered instrumentation with lyrics that are still personal to Vernon, but cryptic at the same time. And even beyond the new expansive sound, Vernon is trying new things. Be it his baritone on “Hinnom, TX”, or he horns on “Michicant”, Vernon is poised to move away from the cabin sound.
This brings me to the last track, the 80’s ballad-esque “Bath/Rest”. It is strange. Not strange in a terrible way, strange in the fact that it’s so out of nowhere. It’s a polarizing final track to be sure as the keyboard definitely throws you, and when the electric guitar and saxophone come in, we are dangerously close to George Michael territory (“Careless Whisper” anyone?) Some seem to think it’s supposed to be ironic, but when has Bon Iver even been anything but completely earnest? It’s the kind of track you’ll struggle with for play after play, but Vernon pulls it off and eventually it’s hard not to like.
Overall there is the odd song that isn’t quite at the level of the others but, when listened to as a full album, everything works. The songs all beautifully bleed into each other and with lyrics that are often hard to make out, it produces a record you can lose yourself in. Even after several listens, it’s still hard to name the tracks from memory. There’s a contingent of people (a friend of mine is one of them) who will resist this new record. Not because it is bad, but because it is so different from that debut. Sometimes people want more of the same and are scared of change. But these fans will surely come around eventually because this Bon Iver, Bon Iver is just too damn good to resist.